Most people think that the gun they personally choose for home defense is the best, and that is completely understandable. Otherwise, they would have chosen a different gun. Right? Actually, it’s all personal preference and what is best for one person, is not necessarily best for everyone else. But each type of gun has characteristics that are in its favor and characteristics that are not in its favor. The problem is picking the right gun for you, not what gun is best for everyone.
So, let’s take a closer look at the most common home defense guns – handguns, shotguns and the AR-15 – and compare them. At least this should help make the choice a little easier and may give you solid reasons for choosing a particular gun, other than that’s the gun someone told you is the best.
First, it is far preferable to never have to fire a shot, but sometimes that is the only way to stop an attacker. However, the truth is, no gun or cartridge that you can easily carry and shoot is guaranteed to stop an assailant. And stopping the attack, not killing the attacker, is the object of having a gun, or any weapon, for self-defense. The attacker must be stopped quickly to prevent the victim from being injured or killed. Some attackers can be stopped by threats or even just seeing a gun, and we should all hope that if ever attacked nothing more is needed, but others can be stopped only by making it physically impossible for them to continue the attack.
Many things that can be used to strike an attacker can stop an assault if used correctly, but a firearm helps to eliminate the physical disparity that may exist between an attacker and victim. A frail old woman can effectively defend herself with a firearm against a strong young man, but may not be able to do so with a club or her fists. And that is one reason why a firearm is often the best choice for self-defense.
But there are many cases where an attacker – or a victim – has been shot in the heart and lived, or survived long enough, to injure or kill the other person. And this holds true for handguns, rifles, and shotguns. In fact, handguns are not very good at stopping an attack compared to other firearms. They are often used though because they are handy and easy to carry. If you are defending yourself in your own home though, ease of carrying probably is not a big concern.
Shotguns, whether firing a slug, buckshot or even birdshot, are very effective at stopping an attacker at the close ranges most often encountered inside a home. While buckshot or a slug increases the effective range of a shotgun and can inflict a lot of damage to an attacker, at the close range typical inside a house, even birdshot is devastating. The pattern is not large because pellets don’t spread very much at close range, even with no choke. Instead, the pellets strike en masse. If you don’t believe it, fire birdshot at a paper target from around five yards and measure the size of the pattern. It’s going to be only a few inches and will leave a big hole in the paper.
A rifle or carbine chambered in .223 Remington or 5.56x45mm NATO with proper bullets delivers a lot of energy at close range and can inflict a very severe wound. Sure, the bullet diameter is less than a quarter of an inch and the bullet weight is pretty light compared to many rifle rounds, but it makes up for it in speed. And when the bullet strikes a person, it generally fragments unless it has a steel penetrator which is not a good choice for home defense anyway. Even full metal jacketed 55 grain .223 rounds most often fragment and deliver a lot of energy to the target causing a massive wound that has a pretty good chance, although no guarantee, of stopping an attack.
Despite what rumors you may have heard, generally, our Special Forces who are in the business of entering structures to find bad guys and often have to shoot them, are satisfied with the close range stopping power of the 5.56 round when using proper ammunition. Open tip 77-grain rounds like the Mk 262 Mod 1 from Black Hills Ammunition (www.black-hills.com) do a pretty good job at close range of stopping bad guys who are trying to kill our warfighters.
Penetrating and passing through an attacker or the wall of a dwelling and striking another person who is not a threat is a valid concern for many who use a firearm for self-defense. There could be a person on the other side of a wall who could be hurt if a bullet passes through the wall and strikes them. And that person may be your spouse or child, so limiting that risk, while using an effective cartridge, is something to consider. But there is a lot of bad information regarding over penetration and some of it is passed along by people who think they know the truth, but don’t.
This will be a big surprise to many. A .223/5.56 round, unless it has a steel penetrator, is a better choice for limiting penetration than just about any handgun round. A 9mm Luger jacketed hollow point (JHP) will pass through more house walls than almost any .223 round.
Gunsite Academy (www.gunsite.com) is in the business of training law-abiding citizens, police and the military how to fight with a gun. In 2009, Gunsite performed a series of tests to compare the penetration of typical house walls by firearm projectiles. In the June 2009 Gunsite newsletter, Ed Head, writer, Range Master, and former Gunsite operations honcho, wrote about the results.
Gunsite fired bullets through walls and measured how far they traveled. The walls consisted of drywall, insulation and exterior siding, like are found on many houses, and were constructed and arranged to mimic the rooms of a house. Test shots were fired from a distance of 21 feet into the first interior wall, and a second interior wall was placed 21 feet behind the first. The exterior wall was 21 feet behind the second wall.
From an 18 inch shotgun, 12 gauge #7 birdshot produced a fist-sized hole in the first wall and a few pellets speckled the second wall, but none penetrated it. A slug and 00 buckshot penetrated all three walls and exited the “house”.
Nine millimeter 147-grain JHP rounds fired from a full sized handgun went through all three walls. But a 55-grain FMJ .223 bullet fired from an AR-15 penetrated the first wall while only a bullet fragment struck the second interior wall and went just halfway through without exiting it. A 55 grain JSP .223 round penetrated the first wall but did not make it far enough to even strike the second wall. While these tests are not a guarantee that all similar rounds will act the same way, they do indicate that the .223/5.56 round is not the over penetrator that popular myth portrays it as.
PROS AND CONS
Handguns, both revolvers, and semi-automatics are often used for self-defense. They are easy to conceal and carry, but in your home, concealment is probably not a big concern, especially if you are sleeping in bed and the handgun is nearby for emergencies. Handguns are also harder to aim than a long gun and recoil is often more difficult to manage. They also have limited ammunition capacity compared to an AR-15 with standard capacity magazines. A handgun may be a little easier to move with through a house compared to an AR-15 or a shotgun, but in most cases, staying in one position behind cover is much safer than moving around. Besides, if the handgun is held at arm’s length in a firing position, the distance from the shooter’s back to the muzzle is only a few inches less than the same distance with an AR-15 or shotgun. For most people in most situations, those few inches are meaningless.
Shotguns deliver a great deal of power to a target and can create a lot of fight stopping damage to the human body whether the payload is a slug, buckshot or even birdshot at the close ranges common to house interiors. But recoil is substantial – much greater than the recoil of an AR-15 with .223/5.56 cartridges – and may be too much for some shooters to deal with. And at the close ranges inside homes, shotguns still must be aimed or missing the target is easy, even with birdshot which does not spread as much as some people believe. However, with proper sights or even a red dot, a shotgun and an AR-15 are easier to aim than a handgun.
Some shotguns may have a slightly larger ammunition capacity than some handguns, especially revolvers, but it is still limited, and loading a shotgun under stress, unless very well trained, is usually slow compared to loading an AR or a semi-automatic handgun. With the frequency of home invasions by multiple criminals increasing, the home defender may need lots of ammunition at the ready. And this factor weighs heavily in favor of the AR-15 when using standard capacity 30 round magazines. I’ve never heard anyone who has been in a gunfight complain that they had too much ammunition.
There is no best gun for home defense, and all guns have characteristics for and against them. What is good for one situation is not necessarily good for all situations, just as what one person prefers is not necessarily preferred by another. Also, some people have physical limitations making one gun easier to shoot than another. The most important factor in choosing a gun for home defense is the gun’s reliability – it must fire every time the trigger is pulled – followed by the ability of the defender to shoot it well.
While the AR-15 in .223/5.56 is a good choice for most people to use in home defense, it is not for everyone. Whatever your choice is, consider the factors and choose wisely because your life may depend on it. And get good self-defense training from a competent instructor regardless of the gun you choose.
A former Contributing and Field Editor for Guns & Ammo magazine, Doug Larson’s articles have appeared in many top firearm publications. He has completed hundreds of hours of firearm and self-defense training provided by some of the finest world class gun fighting instructors and schools. He has experience with handguns, rifles, shotguns, submachine guns, machine guns, and other crew served weapons.